One of the joys of the new, wide-open golf world – a world where none of us had ever heard of Keegan Bradley a year ago and now follow the major champion on Twitter – is the discovery of the Next Big Thing.
No, I speak not of Michelle Wie. This isn't 2003.
I speak of Patrick Cantlay, a 19-year-old as thin as a 4-iron – with a golf resume as fat as a 500cc driver head.
The only thing Cantlay didn't do this summer was win the U.S. Amateur. Instead, he fell, 2-down, on the 36th hole to SMU graduate Kelly Kraft in a dandy of a championship match at Erin Hills (Wisconsin) on Sunday. Too bad, kid. The golf gods have a way of making sure you don't start thinking success in the game is your birthright (ahem, Tiger Woods).
Because Hurricane Irene canceled the PGA Tour FedEx playoff final round at the Barclays in New Jersey, Cantlay and Kraft had the TV spotlight all to themselves. This was a good thing, especially since Cantlay spent all summer making noise though many fans had not had a chance to see the kid's game.
In case you missed it, Cantlay will have a heck of an essay to write when his sophomore English teacher at UCLA asks for the "How I Spent My Summer" missives this fall. He ended his freshman year in Westwood in June by winning NCAA Player of the Year, to go along with his Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and NCAA Freshman of the Year bling. At Congressional's U.S. Open, when Rory McIlroy was obliterating the record book (and making sure Caroline Wozniacki was checking him out), Cantlay was low amateur, finishing an impressive tie for20th.
That was only the beginning for the teenybopper.
With a placid demeanor to match his swing tempo, Cantlay shot a nifty 60 in the second round of the Travelers Championship in Connecticut the very next week, en route to a tie for 24th. That's a record on the PGA Tour for low round by an amateur. His encore was to tie- for 20th at the AT&T National, then tie for ninth at the Canadian Open.
If you're counting: That's four PGA Tour starts, four top-25 finishes and a new record for an amateur, to boot. He won the Southern California Amateur in July, beat defending U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein in the Western Amateur semis, lost a heartbreaker at the Western Am final and then pulled his run to the finals at Erin Hills.
Did we mention the kid was born in 1992? He's so young, he looks at 22-year-olds like McIlroy and scoffs: "I bet that guy doesn't even know how to use an iPad2."
By winning the Amateur, it's Kraft's moment, of course. He came back from 1-down by making bird on the 31st hole and never cracked down the stretch. Cantlay, the can't-miss kid, missed when he hit 8-iron off the tee into a pot bunker on the short par-4 33rd hole. And Cantlay turned into the can't-putt kid when he three-whipped the next hole from the fringe to fall 1-down with two holes left.
Kraft took care of business and earned a spot in next year's British Open, which will go with the Masters and U.S. Open invites he and Cantlay earned by making the finals.
But Cantlay is the world's No. 1 amateur, and by blazing through the summer's competition, he's given us another fresh face to enjoy as Tiger wobbles, Phil ages and Ernie fades. It's been fun: We had Rory at Congressional, Keegan at Atlanta Athletic Club and Patrick doing it for free as an amateur.
Oh, last note on the kid: Did we mention he graduated from Servite High in Anaheim? That proudly athletic high school is located in Orange County, Calif., just 3.4 miles from Western High in Anaheim, where a guy named Tiger attended high school. If Cantlay cashes in on his enormous potential, we have to rename Anaheim "Golf City, U.S.A."
Scorecard of the week
• 66-63-65 – 19-under 194, Dustin Johnson, winner, 54 holes, The Barclays, Plainfield (N.J.) CC, PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoffs.
Or, as I like to call him: "The Curious Case of Dustin Johnson."
This win was in the books by noon PT on Saturday, so it was easy for golf fans to miss it or digest it. Hurricane Irene truncated the tournament, and subsequent photos of some of the golf holes Sunday – or, should I say, lakeside shots – proved it the right decision.
So that leaves us to ponder Johnson, who now owns five wins on the PGA Tour, one in each of the last four seasons (only Phil Mickelson can match that), and two wins in FedEx Cup playoffs the last two years.
Great stuff, right? He's the No. 4-ranked player in the world, for goodness sakes.
Why, then, does a Dustin Johnson win always leave the viewer feeling confused? It's as if he decides once or twice a year to harness his otherworldly talent – incredible physique, soft hands, powerful torque, monstrous abilities off the tee – and show the world: "Yeah. This is pretty much how I do it. I could do it at any given time, you do know."
When you watch Dustin Johnson when he's on his game, he looks like the best player on the planet. He even has a little swagger as he ambles his 6-foot-4 frame from tee to green, as calm as the eye of a hurricane. Shoot, Matt Kuchar had the final-round lead, shot 68 and still lost by two. Johnson blew right past him.
And yet: the Sunday 82 at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach? The bunker mishap at Whistling Straits' PGA Championship in 2010? The O.B. push on 14 at Sandwich in July's British Open, derailing his chase of Darren Clarke?
Just one of those career tragedies would crush the spirit of the average player. Combine them and you'd expect to fit a guy for a strait jacket. Not Johnson. He appears so unencumbered by self-awareness, he bounces right back from them and keeps on winning. I've made the "Bull Durham" Nuke LaLoosh/Dustin Johnson comparison here before, and I stand by it. Sometimes in sports, it pays to be blissfully unaware.
And as Nuke told us at the end of the film, appropriately enough for this past weekend: "Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose; sometimes it rains."
Broadcast moment of the week
• "Just let it go today on the golf course, post my score and everybody run for the airport." – Nick Faldo, The Golf Channel, setting the stage for Saturday's race to beat Hurricane Irene.
I'll save my "play more events on the West Coast, where we don't have hurricanes" rant for another day and just say what a disappointment it was to not be able to see that quality field play Sunday golf.
We all fully understand and support the decision, of course. There was no way golf could be played on Sunday, and as Faldo pointed out – consideration must be given to the CBS crew that had to dismantle cameras off a TV tower in tropical storm winds.
The other problem was, by the time CBS hit the airwaves, we all knew Johnson had outdueled Kuchar. Yes, CBS, the Internet is a new-fangled thing that gives real-time information.
Watching tape-delayed golf for a Saturday finish? Blech. The FedEx Cup playoffs are off to a soggy, tepid start.
Mulligan of the week
• I'm torn this week. At the Canadian Women's Open, Michelle Wie had a chance for a repeat victory. With birdies on the 14th and 15th holes, Wie pulled even with leader and eventual winner Brittany Lincicome as Wie headed to the 16th tee.
But then: bogey.
Lincicome would win the title and lock down the continued oddity of "Most Powerful LPGA/MLB Last Name (Phonetic, Division)" as her name continues to remind me of San Francisco Giants dynamo pitcher Tim Lincecum.
Am I missing something? Is there an MLB player with the last name Tseng, Creamer or Miyazato that I'm forgetting about?
I'm tempted to give Wiesy the Mulligan of the Week, but I spent way more time watching the U.S. Amateur final, and as a UCLA graduate, was rooting hard for Cantlay. (I'd like to add that both of Cantlay's parents are USC graduates. That he shunned the Trojan legacy and went blue-and-gold proves the theory of evolution.)
Cantlay arrived at the 15th tee (33rd hole) with a 1-up lead. He was four holes away from the best amateur summer since Tiger's epic 1994 when The Chosen One won the Western Am, SoCal Am and U.S. Am in one season.
The tees were up on 15, and it played just 230 yards. Still, the green was difficult to hit, and Cantlay made the very conservative decision to lay up off the tee with an 8-iron. Though nobody openly cackled like a chicken on the tee box, his opponent, Kelly Kraft, later said he thought Cantlay's play was a mistake as he watched it.
Worse, Cantlay yanked his 8-iron. His golf ball landed in the pot bunker, and a bogey would surrender his lead. Rattled, he three-putted the next hole and wound up losing the U.S. Amateur.
Losing the U.S. Amateur is painful enough. Losing it by misplaying a lay-up 8-iron is the sort of thing that will have a man staring at ceilings at 3 a.m. for years.
I'm pretty sure Cantlay would join me in this one by saying: Let's sprint back to that 15th tee box and … give that man a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
• The FedEx Cup playoffs are winnowed to the top 100, and hopefully safely away from hurricanes, as well.
The road show travels to Massachusetts for the Labor Day weekend Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston. Don't forget: The tournament starts on Friday and ends on Monday.
We'll hope that extra day gives the Northeast a chance to air out. Everybody: Grab your hair dryers and aim 'em at the TPC fairways!
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- Dustin Johnson
- Michelle Wie